NASHVILLE, Tenn. -- The Tennessee Titans made the move to fire Mike Mularkey after two and a half seasons as head coach with a message that they aren't settling for good enough going forward.
Titans general manager Jon Robinson said he and Titans president/CEO Steve Underwood delivered the news to Mularkey on Monday morning. Mularkey had spent the past week talking to the team about an extension and spoke at his end-of-season news conference about moving forward toward the Senior Bowl next week.
"I just felt like we needed to go in a different direction and maximize the skill sets of the players on the field," Robinson said.
The Titans are the first NFL team to change coaches after a season in which they won a playoff game since the 2002 49ers fired Steve Mariucci. It had been 14 years since the Titans won a playoff game.
There will be a lot of pressure on the Titans' next head coach to not only make the playoffs in year one, but also to take Tennessee beyond their divisional-round playoff finish this past year. Players in the Titans' locker room was supportive of Mularkey, who changed the culture in Tennessee and led them to a 19-15 record and a playoff win in his two years as full-time head coach.
"This was not an easy decision. This was not a gratifying decision for me," Robinson said. "There's very few things that are more important to me than the Tennessee Titans."
So what changed?
Mularkey's unwillingness to adapt to his players and make changes in his offensive staff certainly played a role in this. Robinson said Mularkey's season-ending media conference during which he discussed continuity, a plan to bring back his entire offensive staff and feeling good about Mariota's development played a role in his decision to fire him.
"I think in any organization, not to speak for other teams, but its ownership, the head coach and the general manager -- they all have to be on the same page," Robinson said.
The Titans weren't all on the same page over the past few weeks. This was clear from the back-and-forth from Titans ownership on whether Mularkey was safe. Despite a vote of confidence a little more than a week ago, Mularkey ultimately wasn't safe. Robinson's vision on how to move the Titans forward toward championship contenders won in the end.
Robinson will lead the Titans' head coach search and have "very, very strong input" on the decision. He said it's "paramount" that he and the new head coach share the same philosophy and vision. Titans controlling owner Amy Adams Strunk will need to approve Robinson's candidate choice. It will be Robinson's first head coach hire.
What is Robinson looking for?
Robinson said the word "maximize" six times in his 22-minute media conference Monday. That directly relates to quarterback Marcus Mariota, who had his worst season as a pro, throwing a career-low 13 passing touchdowns and a career-high 15 interceptions.
Mularkey raised eyebrows in his end-of-season media conference by saying he was happy with Mariota's development, equating those struggles to injuries and mistakes by young players. Mariota shouldn't be absolved from his role in those struggles, but the Titans' front office believes that another head coach could "maximize" his skill set.
Twenty-nine quarterbacks threw 300+ passes this season. Marcus Mariota was one of four to throw more interceptions than touchdowns, along with Cleveland's DeShone Kizer, Green Bay's Brett Hundley and Denver's Trevor Siemian.
"Marcus is a really good football player," Robinson said. "I think if you just look at the statistics, it doesn’t quite say that. I think Marcus made a lot of really good plays for us this year."
This will be Mariota's third head coach as he enters his fourth season.
"Marcus is a pretty resilient guy. He’s a very mentally tough guy," Robinson said. "He takes a lot from the standpoint of ownership in things. I have zero concern in Marcus being able to adapt and learn, and do what’s best to get the offense going."
The Titans finished 23rd in total offense and passing offense after Robinson added a bunch of talent on several levels to help them improve upon their 2016 campaign. The offense collectively took a step back.
Robinson said they're searching for answers on how to get more out of this offense. That is a significant portion of why this move was made.
Connections were immediately drawn between Robinson and Patriots offensive coordinator Josh McDaniels, who spent nine years together in New England. But the Titans' winning a playoff game may end up as a disadvantage, because six other teams -- the Oakland Raiders (Jon Gruden), Chicago Bears (Matt Nagy), Indianapolis Colts, New York Giants, Arizona Cardinals and Detroit Lions -- got a head start on interviewing top candidates.
McDaniels isn't officially out yet, but it may be tough for them to flip him from Indianapolis given they've interviewed him already. Another guy with a New England tie could be Texans defensive coordinator Mike Vrabel, who spent eight years with Robinson as a player.
Robinson says he won't only pursue candidates with past ties to him. He listed "leader of men," team-first, detailed, tough, dependable as qualifications for the new head coach.
"We're going into it with really no preconceived notions," Robinson said. "We have a vision for what we want the next head coach to look like. We're looking forward to talking to candidates and seeing if they fit that bill."
"We’ve started that search this morning, going through names and bios, and starting to build a list of potential candidates. It certainly helps to have relationships in the league, and be able to call on those relationships that might have a connection with a potential candidate, even though I might not have a one-on-one relationship with that person. Someone you can trust that will shoot you straight on the candidate."
That could mean guys such as Panthers defensive coordinator Steve Wilks; Eagles offensive coordinator Frank Reich, quarterbacks coach John DeFilippo and defensive coordinator Jim Schwartz; and Chiefs special teams coach Dave Toub could be in the mix.